How Soul Food Shapes Our Identity and Health
9 months ago
“It’s okay to make changes to our beloved culinary tradition so that we can lead longer, healthier lives.”
From black-eyed peas to collard greens, just mentioning soul food conjures up images of family dinners and fun times. But the dishes we love carry a meaning that goes far beyond a full belly. Soul Food Junkies, a film directed by Byron Hurt, explores the complex history of black people’s favorite food, from how it shapes our cultural identity to the impact it has on our health. The documentary is set to screen in Philadelphia on August 5th, as part of the first annual BlackStar Film Festival, which will run August 2nd through 5th at venues around the city. We sat down with Hurt to discuss why we’re so in love with soul food, how what we eat affects our progress as a race, and ways to nurture healthy eating habits in our children.
Loop21: Let’s start with a history lesson: How did what we think of as black soul food come to be?
Byron Hurt: The culinary tradition commonly known today as soul food has its origins in West Africa prior to the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans, torn from their homelands, brought foods like okra and yams with them, as well as their cooking techniques and traditions. When Africans from the Senegambia region reached the Americas, they adapted to the foods, fruits and vegetables that were available to them and turned them into a black culinary tradition. It is believed that black southern food was coined “soul food” in the late 1960s to early 1970s during the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts movements.
Loop21: Why does soul food still play an important role in our lives?
Hurt: Soul food is a part of our cultural legacy, a stamp that we have placed on our world. We are emotionally connected to the food we grew up on that our mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers) prepared for us. More often than not, soul food, or some variation of it, will be present at any large social event or gathering where large numbers of black people are present, such as church picnics, barbecues and fish fries, family reunions and tailgate parties at HBCU football games. As a culture, we have an affinity for soul food because it is a defining part of who we are as a race. It has sustained us through very difficult times, and when cooked well, it tastes very, very good!
Loop21: How do the foods we eat shape our sense of identity as a race?
Hurt: Every culture and ethnic background has a cuisine that defines or shapes their identity as a race. Soul food is ours. In essence, black people created soul food. We made something out of nothing with a pinch of this and a pinch of that. So there exists a sense of cultural and racial pride in creating something that has sustained our families and communities for generations.
Loop21: How does it affect our collective health?